More immigrant children fighting deportation in Ohio court

More immigrant children have been fighting to stay in the U.S. in recent months at Ohio’s only federal immigration court.

Four states separate Ohio from the U.S./Mexican border, but this state has still felt the effects of a recent wave of unaccompanied immigrant children flooding the country this year.

This newspaper found the immigration court in Cleveland has dealt with a record-high number of child immigration cases this year, as more than 57,000 unaccompanied children, most of them hailing from Central America, have traveled to the border from Oct. 1 to July. During that time, 36 new child immigration cases have been entered into Ohio’s immigration court — double the amount of cases last year and the highest number since 2009 — according to federal records this newspaper obtained.

The court has also decided on 66 child immigration cases, again, the highest number on record in recent years.

The increase is directly related to the surge of children crossing the border, many of which are smuggled through drug cartels, said Bahjat ‘Bill’ Abdallah, a Cincinnati and Dayton immigration lawyer.

“There’s a rush of them because of some misinformation,” Abdallah said. “We’re hearing the cartels, they’re saying, ‘if you’re a kid, they’ll just give you papers.’ They’re not ducking the (border) officers, these children are coming to turn themselves in.”

Abdallah said he’s handled seven of the child immigration cases since March. In his decade as an immigration lawyer, he typically handled such a case every other year.

Nationwide, more than 41,000 juvenile immigration cases were pending as of June 30 — a nearly 40 percent increase since last year, according to figures from the Executive Office of Immigration Review.

Growing caseload

Once landing at the border, unaccompanied children are detained and either cared for at a federal facility or released into the custody of a relative or family friend, called sponsors, while they await court removal hearings.

Nearly 360 unaccompanied immigrant kids have been handed over to an Ohio adult. Typically, sponsors either know the family, are from the village the child came from or are related, Marilyn Zayas-Davis, an immigration lawyer in Cincinnati, said. Those in the care of a sponsor are more likely to have an attorney fight their impending deportation in the court system, she said, because the government isn’t obligated to provide legal counsel for immigrant court defendants.

“The ones with private attorneys are the ones staying with a relative or friend,” Zayas-Davis said.

She said the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency will do an FBI background check on the sponsor, before releasing the child, and the sponsor has to sign paperwork guaranteeing the child will show up for court proceedings.

Zayas-Davis agreed that her juvenile immigration caseload has grown in recent months. She’s set to take on roughly a dozen child immigration cases so far this year, which is not typical for the lawyer of 15 years.

Many of those children will seek citizenship here with an asylum claim, and the court cases can take longer than three years to complete, Abdallah said.

The Cleveland court is staffed with three judges who oversee between 2,000 and 5,000 deportation cases entered into the system annually since 2009. The federal agency would not provide average daily caseloads for each of the judges.

But, the federal government has made efforts in recent weeks, amid the growing border crisis, to ease backlog on juvenile immigration cases, Kathryn Mattingly, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Immigration Review, said.

Last month, as the national spotlight turned to the influx of children crossing the border, the federal agency has made it a policy to give a child facing deportation a scheduling hearing within 21 days while an adult, who has a dependent, is suppose to get a trial within 28 days.

The agency has also taken to reorganize court dockets to prioritize cases involving unaccompanied children, adults with detained children and any other person who is in detention of the government.

“We are expediting hearings for our newly defined priority groups to work toward fast and fair adjudication of the cases before the agency, providing shorter wait times for a hearing before an immigration judge,” Mattingly said in an email statement.

The Cleveland court is one of 39 courts across the country that have pending juvenile cases, as of last week, Mattingly said. There are 59 U.S. immigration courts in the country.

Su Casa Hispanic Center, a Cincinnati resource center by Catholic Charities of Southwest Ohio, hasn’t seen a significant increase in the number of immigrants seeking help from the agency as a legal resource, Todd Bergh, the CEO of Catholic Charities, said. However, the agency, which is staffed with volunteers and lawyers, provided legal services 338 times last year, Bergh said.

“There’s a thousand different flavors of what your immigration status is and how you cure that,” Bergh said. “It’s very complex.”

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